Whenever we watch “The Simpsons,” we’re always happily amazed by the convoluted plots they’re able to squeeze into an episode. How they can start at scene one with, say, Lisa getting a pet goldfish and end up 23 minutes later deep in a story about an opera performance that will save the town of Springfield from space aliens who won the Earth in a game of poker. How do they do it?
But isn’t that just like life? If you let yourself move from moment to moment, you just never know where you’ll end up. The path between two points is rarely a straight line.
Like today, when I woke up with a song from “Hamilton” in my head (as I tend to do most days), and I thought it was inevitable that I’d be writing about one of those songs here.
A few hours later I found a link I’d emailed myself a year ago, a song by Leon Bridges that I’d wanted to remember (and promptly forgot). I played it and it blew my mind all over again, how much this young man reminded me of Sam Cooke. I swayed and nodded through his debut album all afternoon.
The fires cooled and dusk dropped over the hill and suddenly there was the moon climbing the maple tree. Lovely Leon was forgotten. Ella Fitzgerald can do that to anyone.
I swear I had a point I wanted to make here, but I’m tired and moon dazzled and we’ve traveled far since this morning. The thread of my day is in knots, but it’s nothing that can’t be untangled by a lullaby and a gentle night’s sleep.
Snow has already come and gone several times in the last few weeks, but today’s snow has a feeling of permanence about it, as if it’s going to become the bedding layer for a winter-long sedimentary cover. Or, as Christina’s Rosetti put it:
Earth stood hard as iron, water like stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow.
I could be wrong. It could all melt tomorrow, but even if it does, this Monday snow is the harbinger: It’s coming. The locking in and locking down. The lights, the fires, the snowshoes, the shovels. The cocoa, the latkes. The frozen gate latch, the frozen water buckets. The hot water buckets, the snowflakes on goat lashes. The jumble of boots by the door, the hoping for a snow day call from school. The thick novel, the hot water bottle. The post office trips, the cinnamon tea.
If it’s not here already, it’s coming.
Let’s bake cookies. Let’s reenact our traditions. Let’s create stories to share. Let’s play games. Let’s fortify ourselves with song. Let’s power on the turntable and put those old records on. Yes, that one, the one that rings in the first real snowfall of the year. And then let’s sing along.
Sunday finds us two girls holiday shopping. We’ve left the boy at home because we’re shopping for, among other people, him. But that doesn’t mean we can’t stop by the coolest clothing store in the area just for a little look-see.
They’re so cool they’re not playing Christmas music. In the way of the universe, they’re playing Simply Red. Hey, didn’t I just mention Simply Red the other day?
I like this kind of magic where all I have to do is think or write a thing and I make it real. I wonder if I could use this power for something more important. I could set the world right. I could change the future. I could make Mondays a permanent holiday.
No such luck. My powers are puny and I am tired. (I had an idea to write about the beauty of repetition, seeing as I keep repeating myself and the themes of time and years and backwards longing, but, it’s late. Can we discuss this another time?)
We’ve bought a pair of bee earrings at the shop (bee shaped, that is, not earrings for bees, though wouldn’t those be darling and cunning?) and examined the chunky scarves (too expensive, not soft enough). By then we’ve shopped enough, I suppose, and want to get home. Our sleigh is filled with gifts. The bees fly home in H’s ears.
This song is still playing in mine.
I started this month planning to write about songs I love, but now I see that music has other plans for me.
Instead, I find myself today with a tune knocking around my head that I loathed for many years. Truly loathed. And now? While I can’t say I adore it, I have a real and ridiculous fondness for it that would have surely shocked my 17-year-old self.
Back in my last few years of high school, I was part of a pack of friends who’d gather most weekend afternoons at once house or another to play—ahem—role-playing games. You know, Dungeons and Dragons and that sort of thing. It was me and a group of four or five guys (I was an honorary guy for most of my pre-college career).
Saturday nights would find us around a kitchen table, its surface strewn with thick rule books (spines worn and cracked), pads of lined paper, stubby no. 2 pencils, bowls of snacks, and a hoard of candy-colored, many-sided dice.
Our favorite game at the time was called Top Secret, a spy-themed game where we performed various dastardly-but-imaginary missions. We’d play for hours and then there’d be a break—a sort of seventh inning stretch for the non-athletic—where the guys would wander to the living room to watch the latest episode of “Doctor Who,” a show I just couldn’t generate any enthusiasm for.
As nerdy and boyish as I was, there was nothing about the low-budget science fiction show that I could admire. There was something so sad-seeming about it to me: dismal, dingy and cold. Just the theme music was enough to put me off, and when I’d hear those first twangy, strumming notes bounce their way into the kitchen, I felt the show’s dismal dinginess seep towards me and I’ve to distract myself by studying the game’s rule book or anything else I could find.
That was then. Today I’m a mom, distinctly not one of the guys, and “Doctor Who” has been refreshed, brightened, and polished into something so glossy it barely resembles that ramshackle early version.
And now I watch it. We watch it together as a family. We laugh over it and cry over it and scoff at it and love it. And I find myself singing that darn theme song over and over, as I feed the fire, do the dishes, sort the laundry, write this post.
And I find myself doing that strange sort of mental time travel, warping back through the years at a speed faster than starlight, to that young self who never imagined herself a wife, a mother, or a “Doctor Who” watcher. And then bending back through galactic clouds to this overcast December day, sitting across from a girl who is now 17 herself, and who cannot for the life of her imagine what her 51-year-old self will be like.
I feel weightless, a bit, or groundless, like I could take off at any moment and find myself riding a comet, or swinging on that slim crescent moon I saw last night, or waking up in a distant galaxy, humming a tune I don’t know and can’t forget.
Sometimes I don’t know myself. [Make that most times, but you know what I mean.]
For instance, ask me what type of music I love, and I’ll give you a tidy list that includes American and British folk and folk-rock; jangly-guitar alternative; Motown and the Philadelphia sound; traditional country (Patsy Cline, I’m talking about you); and the grand embarrassment that is 70s top 40. All of these make sense to me: they sketch the edges of who I think I am, who I imagine myself to be (blue jean wearing, animal loving, rural living child of the 60s).
But it’s not so easy to pin anyone down by the music they love (or the books they read or the foods they eat or the company they keep). And if I reach further I find out that I love, among other things, Italian cafe music, Afro-Cuban music, salsa, R&B, the blues, The Moody Blues, and, yes, even a smattering of blue-eyed soul (I blame Simply Red).
Which brings me today’s song (thanks to H, who introduced it to me a month or two ago and so now it’s in my head most every day) by Pentatonix, a five-member a capella group (Penta, get it?).
I can’t stop listening to it. There, I said it. It’s playing on repeat as I write this. I’m doing that chair dance thing again. I’m impressed that it’s a capella, but that doesn’t enter into the fact that it sticks like honey to my brain.
That’s the thing about music love. There’s no explaining it. You love it or you don’t. It’s beyond words. It’s what’s on your lips when you wake up even in the dark, and it helps ignite the light of the day.
Our excellent friend Kevin writes about all sorts of interesting things on his blog, Keeping Score. He’s a terrific writer, smart and with a generous heart. I enjoy reading whatever he writes, but I particularly love his end-of-year posts, where he shares his favorite music from the concluding year. He doesn’t just list and link the tunes, he gives us a little bit of insight into what he loves about each song, and that just makes each choice a bit sweeter.
Inspired by Kevin, and by the ongoing dreariness of the overcast weather and my generally overcast temperament this time of year, I’ve decided to post a song here each day from now until the new year.
They won’t all be new songs; in fact most of them will probably be old, but I’ll try not to bore you with too many repetitions, and I’ll do my best to follow Kevin’s lead and let you in on why I’ve shared each song.
Today’s song, for instance, “Call Off Your Dogs” by Lake Street Drive.
I heard it for the first time last night on my drive in to town to attend my monthly book group meeting (our next book is Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, if you want to read along).
I had the car radio on with no particular expectations because we have very poor radio choices around here, but two seconds into this song I was hooked. It was obvious why: it hearkens back to the music of my youth, with a frothy 70s groove. It reminds me, maybe, of E.L.O and long, carefree summers. It’s the kind of song that begs to be turned up loud and danced to.
I cranked it as I drove along the river in the drizzle. I couldn’t open the windows, but if you passed me you’d have seen my head bopping and my smile huge, all thoughts of rain and darkness banished for three minutes and 29 carefree seconds .
There will be cheese. And sausage. And crackers. And olives. And candied jalapeños.
The kitchen windows will be steamy and there will be two turkeys and stuffing and mashed potatoes and sweet potato souffle and creamed corn and collard greens and brussels sprouts and cranberry sauce and gravy. And leftovers for a week.
The pie to human ratio must be no less than 3 to 7. One must be apple.
The Michigan contingent will bring snow.
Everyone is welcome to the table. But not necessarily on the table.
Games are sometimes better when you make up your own rules.
Traditions are necessary.
Time will expand in strange ways so that 24 hours will bulge to contain a week’s worth of conversation, laughter, beer, games, food, football, hugs, YouTube videos, dog cuddles, goat cuddles, and cheese glorious cheese.
And time will shrink in strange ways so that 24 hours will fold into a tiny envelope that contains your guests’ arrival and departure in such a brief moment.
And time will shift in strange ways so that those who aren’t with us are still with us, and eight chairs become twenty, and the past is on our plates and in our mouths, and ten years backwards is ten years forwards. And the thing we’ve waited for all autumn suddenly appears, bright and red, in our own backyard.
In honor of the start of a holiday week, a holiday of thanksgiving and gratitude, I’m taking a mental detour from the dire news and the relentlessly grey sky. Let’s look at shiny things instead. Or, if not shiny, how about furry?
For example, this is Wallace (aka Mr. Stevens, aka Mr. Shawn, aka El Mystico and Janet, aka Zed, aka Clem, aka Trash Cat). I haven’t introduced you to each other yet because I’m a very bad host. (Which makes me think of the Wizard’s line in the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” when Dorothy accuses him of being a bad man and he answers, “Oh no, my dear. I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.” I don’t know if the line is in the book because I never read the book. Does that make me a bad woman? Or just a very bad wizard?) I’m so busy sweeping the floors and doing the dishes and putting the pie in the oven that I forget the niceties, like making introductions.
Here then, is Wallace. Just about six months old (as far as the folks at the shelter can reckon). He’s a perfectly ordinary “domestic short hair,” which means just your average ginger tabby. No registration papers, no royal bloodlines, just a darn nice cat.
He spent the first couple of weeks pretending to be shy of us, but now he pretty much owns the place. He’s even beginning to win favor with Gryfe, who was bullied mercilessly by beautiful, dog-hating Hudson.
In his spare time, he enjoys chattering at birds at the feeder, climbing windows, knocking items off of shelves, chasing Oyster, sleeping on his back with his paws splayed in all directions, and generally doing anything that makes us go, “awwwww…”
He’ll be here through the holidays.
- Wake up at 2.30 am. Again.
- Flip the pillow to the cool side.
- Fall asleep. Again.
- Dream you’re in a long, dark room (a bar?) that’s crowded with people wearing grey overcoats.
- Through the knot of grey, see Seamus Heaney (not in grey).
- Poke the shoulder of the person next to you and point out Seamus.
- Get excited when your friend says she (? he?) knows Seamus and will bring him over to introduce you.
- Dream there’s an explosion of some sort and the next thing everyone is in the street and Seamus is gone. No blood, no wreckage, no evidence of a bomb. Just no Seamus.
- Wake up in the Thursday November darkness.
- Blink in the bright bathroom light.
- Brush teeth.
- Feed the dog and cats and girl.
- Wave goodbye to the man and the girl.
- Think, “Now what? The bills?”
- Spy the pan of brownies.
- Shave a thin slice as if to even out the crooked cut line. This is a service. An act of straightening. You should be thanked.
- Strictly avoid the news.
- Consider a nap.
- Think about Seamus. Was he wearing a red coat like the little girl in “Shindler’s List”? Was he a sign? A warning?
- Look at the brownie pan again.
- Go outside to get logs.
- Converse with the goats.
- Start the fires.
- Read reviews about smoke detectors.
- Remember that no one can agree on internet reviews.
- In an act of faith, order new versions of the same brand of smoke detectors you already have.
- Check things off the list.
- Add things you’ve already done to the list.
- Check them off.
- Consider a nap.
- No really. Consider it. You didn’t sleep much last night.
- Blame Seamus. Or the fact that you didn’t get to meet him.
- Tell the dog to stop licking himself. Again.
- Think about “The West Wing” as a political fairy tale.
- Do bills.
- Chuck more logs onto the fire.
- Straighten the brownies out just a bit more.
- Wonder where Seamus went when the explosion happened. Was he killed? Did he just leave through the back door? Did he set the explosion off?
- Take a dreamless nap.
- Avoid the radio.
- See the note on the counter. The one the girl wrote before she could spell, that long ago.
- Imagine time as a spiral, where you’re always in reach of the last loop, revisiting concentric circles of your moments, but each pass takes you just a little further from the last.
- Admit you’re not fooling anyone about the brownies.
- Apologize to the dog.
- Wonder if time spirals intersect. When Seamus traveled his spiral, how close did his come to yours?
- Make dinner.
- Watch night come in.
- Think about writing a poem.
- Watch a movie.
- Go to sleep.
- Wake up at 2.30 am.